When I was 17 years old and a senior in high school, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. And that was really challenging for myself, and my sisters, and my dad, because my mom was just the cornerstone of our family and we all kind of revolved around her. She was by far my best friend.
She had stage III breast cancer, which meant it had spread into her lymph system. So, they ended up removing her breast and doing – and part of her underarm, those lymph nodes underneath her arm – and then they did radiation and chemotherapy. So, it was a year long process and, but she just never got – was never negative. She kept smiling and she came through it. You know, even when she was, you know, totally bald and had lost so much weight, she kept smiling.
So, this was in the early ‘80s. So, it was unusual – or late ‘70s – unusual for someone who was diagnosed that late to survive. But my mom survived for 13 years. Which was well beyond what was expected. And eventually the cancer metastasized to her lungs, her bone, and her liver simultaneously.
So, I was at this point out of college and into my career and when we got the call that she – it had come back, it was – it was devastating. We rallied around and she did another round of chemo and another round of radiation but they couldn’t do anything other then make her comfortable there at the end. So, I was 30 years old, I lost my mom. So that was a really rough thing.
So years go by, flash-forward, it’s – I’m now 43 years old – the same age that my mom was when she was diagnosed – and I noticed a lump in one of my breasts. So, immediately went to the doctor.
I had had a mammogram three months previously. But I just felt this was something new. So I went to the doctor and she said, Denise, this is probably nothing. You know, you just had a mammogram, but to set your mind at ease, let me go ahead and schedule an ultrasound. Well, sure enough, it was ductal carcinoma in situ.
And they did a series of – beyond the ultrasound and the diagnostic mammogram – they then did a stereotactic biopsy, which was really strange. They did that and came back to me and my husband and said, because of your family history, we believe that you should have a prophylactic double mastectomy.
Well, that kind of took my breath away. And I said, is there anything that we can do other than that? And they said, well you know, this is what we would recommend, but if your insurance will approve genetic testing, we will, you know, we can do that and because – the odds are because your mom had it and one of my aunts had it, you may very well have carried the BRCA or BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.
And they told me that I did not have the gene. Which was the only time during the entire process that I broke down into tears. ‘Cause I was so relieved. Not just for the fact that I didn’t need the prophylactic mastectomy. But also because it meant my daughter, my sister, my niece, odds are they didn’t have the gene either. So that was – that was kind of a big deal.
So, anyways, moving forward about a month, in February I underwent a lumpectomy. And because they were very – I was interested in also in taking very large margins. I had a plastic surgery on both breasts. Just had them reconstructed so they’d be the same size.
So, came through that and then underwent radiation. And because I was found at such an early stage, it’s actually considered stage 0 because it had not spread beyond in situ or – in situ means that it’s in one place. So, they were, they still did the radiation to make certain that there was nothing left. No cancer left.
I think what motivated me the most was that my daughter was five years old when I was diagnosed, and I thought even if I am able to survive as long as my mom did, she would still only be 18 years old. Well, my daughter is now 20 and I plan to know her children. But, so I think that what frightened me the most – what was on my mind the most – was how will this effect my little girl?
I mean I’m a firm believer that early detection is the key. If you catch things early, they can be resolved. If you don’t, if you wait and you put off your mammograms and you put off your physical examinations, you can, you know, that’s a very dangerous game to play and not a game I’ve ever played. So I’ve always been diligent about my health. After my cancer I was even more so.
It used to be when my mom had breast cancer, you didn’t talk about it. Number one you didn’t talk about cancer because it was the Big C and you certainly didn’t talk about breasts ‘cause that’s just private.
Well I think now we’ve realized that it’s just a part of our body and that, it’s okay to talk about these things. And that in some ways that communication with other women is therapy. And it makes us know that we’re okay with or without our boobs. You know, we are who we are. It’s just really important for young women to feel comfortable talking to their provider and letting them know what their concerns are.
If my provider had not known that my mom had died of breast cancer, and if she had not known that I was a little bit on the paranoid side, she might not have sent me for that mammogram three months after a previous mammogram. But she just did it to set my mind at ease and out of that came the fact that I had such early detection. So I just would advise that women take care of themselves, listen to their bodies, understand that if something doesn’t feel right, say something to someone.